Preventative Maintenance for the Next Generation

Avoid drill rig downtime by cultivating a mindset towards maintaining equipment.

By Mike Price

The maintenance program created by Apex Drilling LLC in Burley, Idaho, is helping its drilling crews find the more forgotten checked/maintained items—tires being one of them. In the drilling industry, tires have problems long before they’re worn out. The age of the tire is a greater factor than the wear. Having tires at the proper air pressure is critical for longer life/service. Photo courtesy David Baker, Apex Drilling.

Keen on maximizing efficiency, David Baker created a checklist recently to help teach his younger drilling crews how to maintain their equipment.

The maintenance checklist, implemented a few months ago, covers equipment to monitor on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. An area is devoted to tracking service truck miles, rig miles and hours, as well as welder hours to know when an oil change is needed. The goal is to not let any maintenance task fall by the wayside.

“It’s kind of brought about them (drilling crews) thinking of other things, recognizing other things, and having a mindset towards maintaining their equipment,” says Baker, owner of Apex Drilling LLC in Burley, Idaho, “and that’s the most important thing—having that mindset towards maintenance.”

Baker, president of the Idaho Ground Water Association, worked as a maintenance mechanic for nearly nine years at a potato processing plant before entering the water well industry. He worked at the plant under the supervision of a 20-year Air Force veteran who previously was a maintenance manager of intercontinental ballistic missile sites in the Midwest. Baker credits those years for helping him get keyed in on being proactive with equipment maintenance.

Weekly lubrication of key components such as lift chains and drive lines is vital to the long wear/long replacement intervals to save money and stop/ reduce downtime.

“I learned a lot about preventative maintenance and things you start looking for,” Baker says. “If you know about some of these small things before they become big things, then you don’t have downtime on the jobsites.”

Months into implementing the maintenance checklist, Baker is seeing his drill crews take ownership by noticing minor issues on their four drill rigs and making note of them. The crews then look at the list and fix the issues during half a day in the shop while they’re in between jobs, or at a jobsite when time allows for it.

“We’re collecting data and we’ll see where this goes,” Baker says. “If we need to make modifications, we will. I’m sure we’ll be making some.”

The daily oil check allows for close monitoring of the most vital equipment. Small changes in the condition of the oil can lead to early problem detection. Photos courtesy Baker, Apex Drilling.

Factoring into the maintenance of his equipment is the fact that Baker is using a higher-grade oil and additives package rather than what the manufacturer recommends. Also, every 200 to 300 hours of use, he has equipment oil samples (engine, hydraulic, and compressor oils) sent and analyzed by a lab in Salt Lake City, Utah. The lab runs an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) cleanliness analysis and designates a code to how clean the oil is and the results dictate when Baker needs to change the oil in his equipment.

The lab analysis, Baker says, provides a clear indication as to whether filtration is working properly, and if therefore, the oil is clean. Conversely, it indicates when a change might be necessary.

Baker provides his reasoning for opting for the higher-grade oil and additives package:

“Hydraulics, pumps, and motors have an ISO cleanliness code on the oil,” Baker explains. “If you run that hydraulic system within that cleanliness code at 70 degrees in a controlled environment, you’re going to get 10,000 hours out of your pumps.

Apex Drilling’s maintenance checklist. Image courtesy Baker, Apex Drilling.

“When putting the pumps on mobile equipment, it cuts it in half, so you get 5000 hours on pumps because they’re working in the extreme heat, cold, and dirt. As long as you maintain that cleanliness code in your oil, you can expect 5000 hours, but as soon as you go one code dirtier in your oil, you cut that in half. If you can operate one code cleanlier you can double it, and so we’re trying to operate in a manner that is not necessarily normal in an effort to try and get our equipment to last longer. Ultimately, it reduces our cost of maintenance.”

Baker shared how an engine oil analysis helped him avoid an engine overhaul on one of his rigs. The analysis detected higher levels of copper than normal and signaled to him that the rod bearings and main bearings were beginning to wear. The bearings are made from brass and electroplated in copper and then electroplated in zinc.

“When you put new bearings in and you’re running it, you’re going to see zinc in your oil, just a little bit all along and then you’ll see copper,” he says. “When you see copper, you know you’ve worn through the zinc. Then you watch it, and when it wears through the copper and starts showing up with brass in the oil, you know you’re ready for an engine overhaul.”

Instead of pulling the engine for an overhaul, the analysis pointed Baker to change the bearings.

“The biggest thing—yes, it pushes out the engine overhaul timewise,” Baker says, “but it’s that it gives you a heads-up that it needs an overhaul before you’re on a well and you’ve got tooling 300, 400 feet down in the ground and all sudden you have an engine breakdown. If I know my engine needs rebuilt and is still running, after this job, we’re going to bring it in and do an engine overhaul. It’s on scheduled downtime and the other rigs are filling in the gaps.”

Benefits of an Oil Sampling System

Beinhower Bros. Drilling Co. in Johnstown, Ohio, began using an oil sampling system when it purchased its 2018 GEFCO 40K. The company initially conducted oil sampling for warranty purposes, but it has continued to sample and monitor its equipment fluids.

“Typically before, the service interval would be based on hourly usage,” explains Nic Sprowls of Beinhower Bros. Drilling, “whereas with sampling, I have a better idea on how to gauge when to perform service. I feel it maximizes the life you get out of each fluid and doesn’t allow you to change too early or wait too long.

“This doesn’t replace the hourly interval by any means, but it will modify your process/intervals and detect problems long before a costly repair.”

Sprowls shared how analysis of the compressor oil came back with an irregular amount of water in the sample. He made an immediate call to the manufacturer on how to proceed. A copy of the results had already been sent to the manufacturer and it determined the water needed to be drained more often.

“Where I would’ve normally gone by footage drilled before doing this simple task, I’ve since changed to every use,” Sprowls says. “That simple change because of sampling saved a costly repair down the road. Every rig is different to where the sampling will give you an idea of what your rig needs.”

Sprowls, president of the Ohio Water Well Association, also shared how hydraulic oil in the GEFCO 40K came back with elevated metal content. He says nothing indicated that the hydraulics were acting up, but the oil sample prompted further investigation which revealed a hydraulic pump failed prematurely.

“It saved our entire hydraulic system by just testing the oil,” Sprowls says.

Since oil sampling isn’t standard operating procedure in the industry, Sprowls suggests contractors give it a try. He says the first steps may entail contacting their oil supplier.

“I’ve heard most of them will do oil sampling,” he says. “If their rig manufacturer or rig mechanic knows of a place to get this done, it works well for us to have results go to them also. If they get this far with it, definitely consult the operator on their thoughts. It’s only as effective as the person taking the sample.

“Oil sampling may make sense to some guys, and others may laugh at the idea. I know we will never advance in the industry by doing things the same way it was done in the past.”

Sprowls stresses that maintenance needs to be intentional where time is made for it. He makes a point that being proactive is less stressful than reacting to an engine replacement in a customer’s front yard. After all, it’s much easier to work on the machines in a climate-controlled shop or gravel lot with no mud.

“What I’ve done for routine items is put a value on them that is relevant to our industry,” he shares. “Most drilling is accounted for by the foot, so I will analyze what kind of drilling I’m doing and put a footage on it. For example, I grease the rig every so many feet of overall drilling. If I’m mud drilling, the mud pump and swivel get greased very well, no matter the footage. Air drilling may be more frequent on the swivel due to the temperatures.

“Overall, the entire rig gets greased on a footage basis. That way I have several reminders that it needs done—from billing to inventory to filling out a well log—I have several tools that are reminders to grease.”

In addition to these built-in reminder tools, Sprowls keeps a folder with a piece of paper stapled in the inside cover on each piece of equipment. Within that folder is a copy of everything that’s been done to it—whether in-house or outsourced.

“Some items I track are hydraulic pressures, oil changes, and even if the design of a pipe wrench gets changed,” he says, because “the more you write down the better. Time gets away from us so fast, you’d be surprised at what gets written down and forgotten about.”

Take Pride in the Equipment

National Ground Water Association President-Elect Brian Snelten, PG, area manager at Layne Christensen, A Granite Company, in Aurora, Illinois, advises contractors to take pride in the equipment they’re operating because it’s what makes the revenue.

“The main reason Layne is dedicated to a robust equipment inspection/maintenance program is the safety of our employees,” Snelten says. “If we can keep our equipment safe to operate, it reduces the hazards to our employees and helps prevent injuries. They go home to their families at the end of the day in the same condition they came to work.

“We’ve made incredible strides in our safety performance over the past four years, and we see equipment maintenance as a required component to our continued safety evolution to not just maintain industry leading safety performance, but achieve true world-class safety.”

Beyond improved safety, Layne sees additional benefits of an aggressive maintenance and repair program achieving increased employee engagement, client appreciation and recognition, decreased maintenance costs, decreased downtime, increased productivity and profitability, and differentiation from the competition.

“If your equipment is constantly breaking down and not available, you lose opportunities to your competitors and your clients lose confidence in your abilities,” Snelten says. “Plus, who doesn’t like a well-maintained, good-looking piece of equipment? If you look to the Groundwater Week exhibition floor, you find the most people huddled around all that nice and shiny new equipment.”

Layne rolled out a new maintenance program in 2021 for its several thousand pieces of equipment—drill rigs, pump rigs, trucks, trailers, and support equipment—and for the roughly 350 field staff who operate them.

“We’re showing our crews that we care about their safety by caring for our equipment. We’re showing our clients that we care about our equipment and our people and making sure that their projects are completed in a safe and efficient manner,” says Snelten, chair of the NGWA Government Affairs
Committee. “But at the end of the day we don’t want to hurt anyone—that’s our highest priority.”

The program consists of daily, monthly, and annual inspections of the drill rigs, pump rigs, and service trucks. Inspection items include fluid levels, wire ropes, sheaves, frame welds, controls, emergency stops, etc. A copy of the inspection goes to the field superintendent and mechanic and repairs
are addressed. “Employees are asked to report and record all deficiencies so they can be corrected,” Snelten explains. “No employee is allowed to work on any piece of equipment that is not 100 percent safe and compliant with OSHA, DOT, or any other safety standards. The employees are key to the success of the program. Their engagement in identifying and ensuring items are corrected is critical.”

The program also presents Layne with information to determine action steps for a piece of equipment. If a piece of equipment continues to have persistent maintenance issues, and its records show maintenance costs are excessive, the question becomes: Is it better to perform a mid-life rebuild where another seven to 10 years can be gained, or is it better to replace it?

For smaller companies in the industry, Snelten says to come up with a maintenance plan and stick to it.

“This also needs to be an everyday thing,” he says. “You have to dedicate yourself and your business to a program like this. You can’t fix everything at once, it will take time.

“Find what works for your business and your equipment and keep working at it. Will it take money? You bet it will. But at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do for employees to provide them with safely operating equipment. Your customers will thank you also when you don’t leave an oil bloom on their driveway or yard.”


Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at mprice@ngwa.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.